Traditional Knowledge Keeper and Elder, Westwind Evening, (L), addresses the small group gathered for the honouring ceremony. Drummer/Singer, Jenny Blackbird, (R), performs during the honouring ceremony. (Photos: UHN)

On the ceremonial table, laid out on a cloth representing the Indigenous medicine wheel and four directions, the sacred medicine sits within each doorway of the cloth: tobacco in the east, cedar in the south, sage in the west, sweet grass in the north.

Alongside the medicine wheel and the abalone shell, wafting hints of burning sage, sits a hand drum, the focal point of the honouring ceremony taking place in the Michener Gitigan, or Indigenous garden, at the Michener Institute of Education at UHN. The drum is a gift to UHN from the Toronto Central Region Indigenous Cancer Program (TCR-ICP), given and received to help facilitate healing and support culturally inclusive care for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis community members.​

"For many First Nation, Inuit and Métis peoples, the drum is far more than an instrument. It represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth," explains Leonard Benoit, a member of the Qalipu Mi'Kmaq First Nation in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Regional Indigenous Cancer Patient Navigator for the TCR-ICP. He presented the drum to UHN on behalf of the program.

"Drums are tools for a lifelong connection to, and relationship with, all living things and the Creator," Leonard said. "The circle presents balance, equality, wholeness, and connection.

"The beating of the drum helps us listen to our soul so we can understand our purpose and our connection to Mother Earth and each other in the circle of life."

UHN is one of nine cancer care sites in the region to humbly receive the gift of a hand drum in recent months. The ceremony marks a significant action in UHN history to effect change in supporting Indigenous healing practices in the health and well-being of Indigenous patients, families, and staff.

"One of the biggest challenges we encounter as Indigenous people is that we don't see anything about us in institutional spaces, including hospitals," says Dr. Michael Anderson, Mohawk (Bear Clan) and Strategic Lead of the Indigenous Health Program at UHN, who accepted the drum on behalf of the network.

"Bringing a drum into that space is symbolic."

For many First Nation, Inuit and Métis peoples, the drum is far more than an instrument. It represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth. (Photo: UHN)

The drum's presence and availability also go beyond symbolism and into the realm of practicality for many Indigenous peoples, with access to a drum performing a therapeutic function.

"As clinicians, you may say that we often become so focused on the physical aspects that we don't always realize that healing looks like a lot of different things," says Dr. Anderson.

After publishing this story, we received news that Westwind Evening, a highly-respected Elder and Knowledge Keeper, has begun the next part of her journey. She was much-loved by the team at UHN's Indigenous Health Program (IHP) and by many from the Tkaronto area and afar. She helped UHN on many occasions, most recently with the September Drum Gifting Ceremony featured here, and a June Honouring Ceremony, and has frequently been sou​ght for her respected feedback on many initiatives. Read a statement from IHP on her passing.​​ ​

A statement from the Indigenous
​Health​ program

"The sound of a drum beat is with us throughout our lives. It soothes us early in life, reminding us of our mother's heartbeat, the first sound we hear in the womb. But it also provides solace at the end of life, relieving anxiety and existential stress."

Early in his career as a palliative care doctor, Dr. Anderson remembers asking elders in his Mohawk community to share their wisdom on death and dying.

"One of the comments was that at the end of life, typically your physical realm is failing, it's diminishing, but your end of life is such an auspicious opportunity to heal your spirit," he says. "And you heal your spirit throu​gh ceremony."

This holistic approach to healing is a key pillar of the work that the TCR-ICP sets out to do. It is also committed to learning and unlearning from the past on a path forward to provide culturally safe care.

"This is just the beginning of all of us learning how we work together to enhance spiritual care support to Indigenous patients," says Joanna Vautour, Anishnawbe from Serpent River First Nation of Ontario and TCR-ICP Lead.

"Within healthcare institutions, Indigenous patients have a legal and human right to practice ceremony. We hope the drum will be a step forward to address the historical and ongoing inequities Indigenous peoples face in the healthcare system.

This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Anderson, who points to the historical and intergenerational trauma still apparent in the Indigenous community after years of cultural suppression and oppression.

"Unfortunately, healthcare institutions were tools used to harm our communities," he explains.

"For several generations, our cultural practices, such as drumming, dancing, and smudging, were illegal under the Potlatch Ban. The things that are so paramount to our healing were stripped from us.

"They only survived because we had people who learned to practice in secret. We have had to reclaim our heritage."

Back Row (L to R) Dr. Michael Anderson, Strategic Lead of the Indigenous Health Program, UHN; Dr. Keith Stewart, VP Cancer, UHN and Medical Director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre; Leonard Benoit, Regional Indigenous Cancer Patient Navigator, TCR-ICP; Dr. Brian Hodges, Chief Medical Officer, EVP Education, UHN. Front Row (L to R) Suman Dhanju, Director, TCR-ICP; Joanna Vautour, Regional Indigenous Cancer Lead, TCR-ICP; Westwind Evening, Traditional Knowledge Keeper; Jenny Blackbird Drummer/Singer; Muriel Lopez, Regional Indigenous Program Coordinator TCR-ICP; Ashley Migwans, Program Coordinator, Indigenous Health & Social Medicine, UHN. (Photo: UHN)

Cultural awareness of Indigenous healing practices is one of the 94 Calls to Action from Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was part of a comprehensive response to the abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples through the Indian residential school system and the harmful legacy of those institutions.

Call to Action 22 asks for recognition of Aboriginal healing practices' value and for healthcare practitioners and leaders to collaborate with Indigenous patients and families who request the use of these practices in their care.

At the drum honouring ceremony, Dr. Keith Stewart, VP Cancer at UHN and Medical Director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, acknowledged the barriers Indigenous communities face in accessing inclusive healthcare. He also reiterated UHN's commitment to listening and learning how to better support their needs during their care journey.

"We are committed to making UHN a safe space for First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, a space where healing can take place, where everyone feels welcomed and cared for," says Dr. Stewart.

"Providing access to the hand drum brings us a step further to creating that safe space and realizing the promise of Truth and Reconciliation in our community through our commitment to change."

Patients and staff who wish to access the traditional supports available at UHN are encouraged to reach out to Leonard Benoit.

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